Chapman, Costin & the Vanwall



The achievement of Tony Vandervell and the Vanwall are difficult to quantify with the passage of time. This article will attempt to reflect on its relative achievement and magnitude. It will attempt this with a wider appreciation of the technology base prevalent at the time.
The establishment of British motor sport and domination in during the 1960’s can be attributed to the inspiration of Vanwall. Much of the creative and winning advantage being supplied by Chapman and Costin.
In many respects Chapman and Lotus would inherit the mantle and represent Britain in International competition.

The editors had hoped to be able to present some new material as a result of research at Acton and Ealing [West London, UK] where the Vanwall was produced in the 1950’s. Sadly dramatic new archive or photographs have not been found. However research has thrown up at least a different perspective on the Vanwall achievements that have perhaps not been expressed previously.

Motor sport in an engineering and science lead sport. This emerged early in the motor car development, accelerated between the wars with the refinement of aerodynamic theory and again post war with adoption and extrapolation of scientific thinking more thoroughly integrated with the likes of Costin and Chapman. Here we witness the “Appliance of Science”

This science and level of technology is not cheap and hence the interesting comparison and competition between the major manufacturers and private independents with their respective budgets. The “David v Goliath”. The Continental Manufacturers v the British amateur constructor [“garagisters”]
In this article we will examine an interaction of the best of both through the Vanwall. A fuller a clearer appreciation of the subject matter might be achieved by our subscribers if they care to look at the A&R articles on our biography on Frank Costin; “The Works” and “Location and Evolution” of motor sport organizations and companies.

The Vanwall story is substantially British and reflects much of the engineering preeminence that was located in West London and particularly in Park Royal.

The Magnitude of the Vanwall Achievement.

It’s difficult for one generation to look back and understand the magnitude of achievement because of the difficulty in making relative comparison. The editors might suggest the recent success of Brawn.
Tony Vandervell with the Vanwall overcame a massive psychological barrier in relation to British motor sport. There had been Continental domination for 30 years.

Up until the Vanwall taking the World Championship in 1958 the previous pattern had been:
Continental Champions/Contenders British Challengers
Alfa Romeo ERA
Lago Talbot BRM
Ferrari Frazer Nash
Maserati HWM
Simca Gordini Cooper Bristol
Gordini Connaught
Mercedes Benz Cooper Alta
Lanca Cooper Climax
Lancia Ferrari i Lotus Climax

Tony Vandervell made a very significant investment in the Thin Wall Bearing factory and the Vanwall programme. There is a suggestion that the patent, land, building and tooling cost in the region of £400,000 c 1935-1944. It’s possible that much of the cost of the Vanwall was wrapped within this. The fact remains that technology and success did not come cheap. Every indication is that it must bear some comparison with a modern FI team. Venables emphasizes this point when he notes “ it was a fitting reward for all the resources which Tony Vandervell had put into the Vanwall, whose cars were built to exquisite tool room standard”
Vandervell was definitely not a “garagister”

This investment was a made during a period of considerable economic uncertainty. Much of Britain’s resources were depleted during the Second World War. There was rationing for a period afterwards.

It was an immense achievement for the Vanwall to win the World championship in 1958.
It’s believed that the Vanwall won 6 out 0f 9 Grand Prix’s to take the Championship.
This must be understood in the context of the internal economic position and that of the continuity and confidence of the Continental opposition. However Britain had flair and technology extrapolated from wartime.

It’s perhaps important to note it was possibly one of the last of the front-engined generation.

It could not have been achieved with out the specialist craftsmen and companies conveniently located in London and distributed throughout the UK and beyond.

Guy Anthony [Tony] Vandervell

Tony Vandervell born in 1898 was quite a remarkable man. An industrialist/ entrepreneur, a patriot, motorcycle rider in his youth [he rode in trials and in the Senior Manx TT in 1921] .He is also believed to have raced at Brooklands c 1921-24. He fought for his country during the war. He took on the might of the Continent and after some failure and development was able to win when assistance was provided from Chapman and Costin.
It would seem to that he was a man of considerable vision [seeing, anticipating potential and possibly projections to future growth opportunities] mixed with determination. The evidence suggests that he was correct as shortly after their introduction the thin wall bearing was” used almost universally throughout the British and car and aircraft industries”

Obviously cultured and a sportsman in widest sense of the British tradition.

Tony Vandervell was a supporter of the BRM project [this would be natural accepting his competition interest and status as engineering / component manufacturer.]
Tony Vandervell is presented as hard but fair man. Possibly too an enlightened autocrat he probably saw the excessive and misguided committee structure at BRM as a handicap and drag on progress. He nonetheless generously supported motor racing.
He realistically acquired a Ferrari c 1948 for research and evaluation. This was [technically, economically, competitively and commercially] a very sensible approach. It would improve the learning curve and provide momentum. A second Ferrari was acquired and raced as the “Thin Wall Special” This must have provided the Vandervell Co. with useful publicity.
Venables records that Tony Vandervell “ ambition was to build a successful Grand Prix car. He set his staff working on a design for the 1952-53 2-0-litre Formula 2.”

Ultimately he had the confidence and determination to commit to winning.
He was modest and generous in sharing success and referred to achievements as a “Team Effort”
For the winning 1958 season Tony Vandervell secured the services of Moss, Brooks and Lewis-Evans.
Its possible that following the death of Lewis-Evans, and more competitive opposition Tony Vandervell decided to withdraw from racing in 1959. Vandervell did briefly experiment with a rear-engined car; the VW14 but the full GP team was not in operation.

Tony Vandervell died in 1967.Venables comments and makes the assessment
“His dedication and determination had put Britain on the map in Grand Prix racing. Vanwall started a run of success for British Racing Green which has been maintained ever since”

He also had the courage to commission Chapman and Costin. We ought understand this in the context that he was a very wealthy and significant powerful industrialist who had formed his own team. He must have had considerable faith and belief in Chapman and Costin. [Admittedly they both had track record but Lotus was under a decade old and had not yet entered FI] They were possibly well recommended but Tony Vandervell can be measured by his openness and determination to win in commissioning these two men. It’s also possibly consistent as s successful businessman that he was able to make calculated decisions regarding investments and outcomes.
The fact that they were London based and easily accessible was possibly a major contributory factor. The patronage must have lifted their esteem and confidence.

The Context and Brief History.

The interwar period was characterized by extreme swings in the world economies and of wealth and poverty. It was period also dominated by advances in technology, science and speed was both a physical reality but also an expression or motif of the era.
Airlines, flight technology and civil airship programmes expanded and with it the world shrank. Lindbergh in 1927 and Malcolm Campbell were heroes of speed and record breaking
In America we had the introduction of mass production of the motorcar as exemplified by Henry Ford who possible fore- sore the potential of a mass market following the production practice and capacity of the First World War. Complementary was the thinking of Frederick Winslow Taylor.
Counterbalanced against this progress was the 1926 General Strike in the Britain the 1929 Wall Street crash in 1929, the Depression in both America and Britain and as the shadow of war hung over Europe with the 1936 Jarrow March. On both sides of the Atlantic measures were attempted to alleviate some of the social extremes. America adopted the New Deal in 1935 and Tennessee Valley Authority established in 1939 and with it came mass electrification and the potential for economic growth.
During the 1930’s significant work was done relating to he atom.

In Britain during the 1930’s there were considerable economic and technological changes taking place. In fact he older Industrial Revolution with its locational patterns and manufacturing practice were being replaced.
In Britain and particularly in London the requirement for bigger plants and production methods [see above] and commensurate distribution systems demanded new locations and networks. This along with electrification and the house-building programme prompted what we know as “Metro Land”. The structural change in industry required an outwards movement from the older centers and in London towards the West and the larger mass production plants in the West Midlands.
Two major arteries/ corridors were created running out from Central London. Both ran through Middlesex. They were the Great West Road [particularly significant in Brentford [see A&R article on Motor sport locations] and Western Avenue running out through Acton and Perivale and most significantly alongside Park Royal. These combined with the rail connections gave access to the West, sources of skilled labour, distribution and markets.

The mid 1930’s were not the most auspicious time for major investment. However this is bravely, confidently and perhaps with insight Tony Vandervell did.
The architecture of the era was inspired by engineering and advances in production techniques. The leading school of thought at the time was the German Bauhaus. [See A&R article Industrial Designers] The electrified underground lines we have mentioned radiated out of London. Thee stations were strongly influenced by this modern style. One of the most representative is Park Royal serving the industrial heartland of London. Welsh and Lander designed this building under the influence of Charles Holden. It was and remains a significant landmark.
Tony Vandervell chose to build his factory almost opposite the Park Royal station on the northern side of Western Avenue we believe. The suggestion is that Sir Aston Webb in 1935.Its believed the design the building has been demolished.

Collaboration of actual location has proved difficult. Search of the Internet has not revealed any pictures of the building. The editor has only seen two photographs in Jenkinson and Posthumus. Reference to the large scale Ordinance Survey maps is inconclusive, although they do concur with Kemps directory of 1955. The editor believes that the building built in 1935 may have been extended [see Ordinance Survey sheet for both 1935 and 1956] and that a further factory or administration building might have been in close proximity. The editors deduction is that a two storey building in the modernist style with a central staircase / lift was approximately 180 -200 feet long approximately and ran parallel with the Western Avenue and was shoe horned between the main road and railway line to the north. The building seems to be finished in white smooth render and each of the symmetrical wings had lettering stating Vandervell Products Ltd. above the second storey windows and below the parapet. In one photograph the chimneys of the Guinness Brewery at Park Royal can be seen [or conversely the chimneys of the milk factory opposite]. The OS plan indicates there was a service road leading into the site from Western Avenue and a platform alongside the building suggests is function of efficient loading and delivery. There are others suggestions that a second Vendervell building might have been built c 1936/37.

The Economic Geography and Technology in West London.

In our economic investigation we must make some estimations/ extrapolations. However should the CCM&EC be established it would be hoped that much more detailed, and accurate research could be conducted particularly with regard to the cost of related projects and associated legal contracts.

West London has a significant economic and technological history from the 19th century. This partly grew up around the Grand Junction canal.
An early aerodrome was developed by London Aviation Co in the North Acton corner of Middlesex, West London. Ruffy, Arnell& Baumann made a plane c 1917 they were taken over by Alliance Areoplane Co.De Havilland tri-planes/ biplanes were also made there c 1919. Renault made cars at a factory in Acton and skilled manufacture was intensified on the Park Royal complex .In 1952 Park Royal comprised 335 acres.
It’s therefore understandable why Charles and later Tony Vandervell would see such advantage in the area.

Charles Anthony Vandervell moved his company [later known as CAV that made accumulators, electric lamps and switchboards] from Willesden to Warple Way, Acton Vale, and West London between 1904 and 1908 it’s estimated.
It’s believed they were involved in general engineering, tool making and manufactured precision instruments. According to Venables they “supplied electrical components to many manufacturers in the early British motor industry”.
Charles Vandervell also had an interest in Norton the motorcycle manufacturer.
The firm pioneered the dynamo charged battery and in 1911 produced the worlds first public service lighting system. Other items included vehicle electrics and aircraft magnetos. As the company and technology advanced they also made wireless components, fuel injection pumps for diesel industry and during the Second World War fuel systems for aircraft.
The following employment details are recorded:
1980: c3000
Its believed that in 1926 CAV was bought by Joseph Lucas and in the later stages before the factory closed in the late 1970’s / 80’s heavy duty electrical equipment for commercial vehicles were produced.

Vandervell Products originated as O&S Oiless Bearings Co .It was bought in 1927 by Charles Vandervell whose son Tony was made director. The company acquired the American patent or licence from Cleveland Graphite Bronze for the revolutionary thin wall or shell engine bearing from 1935.
During the Second World War they made bearings for the Napier “Saber” aero engine.
In 1967 the company was bought by GKN production was moved to Maidenhead in Berkshire and the Acton works closed in 1970

Its believed that the Vanwall was constructed at the Vandervell works on Western Avenue. This was of course immediately adjacent to the Park Royal Industrial complex.
The car was constructed at what was called the “Stable” and twelve engineers/ fitters craftsmen attended to them under Frank Davis. Klemantaski alludes to “Acton the Racing Department”

Western Avenue was only eight to ten miles from Hornsey and would be connected via the North Circular.

Incidentally supporting the technical skill base were the following colleges in the immediate area;

  • Acton Technical college
  • Acton School of engineering
  • Chiswick Polytechnic
  • Ealing Technical College
  • Ealing School of Art

The population of Acton in 1954 was 67,640 and the Rateable Value £875.821

A basic analysis of the specialist contributions to the Vanwall

Jenkinson &Posthumus provide a listing of the companies and specialists that supported the Vanwall programme.

89 organizations are listed in total.
28 are London based
51 are British based
10 are Continental or American

The editors suggest reference to the Max Miller cutaway drawing that is a fine technical treaties that acts as an X Ray and will assist recognition and interrelationship of components.
All those companies that are recorded by Jenkinson and Posthumus are detailed in the A&R article on “Motor Sport “locations.

The Vanwall: Basic Specification.

The Vanwall became World Champion in 1958 and its success was part attributed to its balanced combination of reliability and innovation.

  • Four-cylinder in line engine twin ohc derived from concepts used in Manx Norton motorcycle engine with Rolls Royce B40 crankcase. Weight estimated 164 kg]
  • 265-270 bhp estimated and depending on fuel.
  • 5 speed gearbox
  • Dry Weight 1346ibs estimated
  • Fuel injected
  • 2.5 liters [2490cc] bore 96mm x 86mm stroke cr .11:1
  • 2 valves per cylinder 2 spark plugs per cylinder.
  • Ignition Bosh double magneto
  • Goodyear Disc brakes .F&R
  • De Dion rear suspension. Radius arms and Watts linkage.
  • Front suspension by wishbones and coil spring dampers.
  • Speed approximately 165 mph
  • Frontal area: 12,8 sq, ft
  • Chassis by Cooper modified by Chapman [see below] Space frame possibly similar to existing Chapman design]
  • Cd: 0,585
  • Length: 14 ft
  • Wheel base 7’6 1/4”
  • C 1955 / 56 4 cars built with interchangeable components.
  • Chassis No’s VW 1/56 to VW4/56
  • Vanwall multiplate clutch
  • ZF limited slip differential.
  • Tyres: Dunlop .F 5.50x 16 R 7.oox 16
  • Saddle petrol tanks with capacity 180 litres

Chapman and Costin: Their contribution to the Vanwall.

Venables comments
“For 1956 more power was found in the engine while Colin Chapman who had built up a considerable reputation with his Lotus sports –racing cars was engaged to design a new stiffer chassis frame and revised rear suspension. At Chapman’s suggestion Frank costing an experienced aerodynamicist, designed a new and distinctive low drag body which owed much to aircraft practice”
It’s believed to have won the first race after Chapman/Costin modifications.

There are possible variations and interpretations around this involvement. [Quality research is required as to possible contracts and the respective drawings prepared] One suggestion and perfectly pragmatic is that Chapman may have made verbal suggestions letting the Vandervell crafts men interpret these so the older chassis was improved. This has been alluded to as the “Master class”
Costin did a considerable job on the aerodynamic body. The details are set out in Bamsey’s book. Copies exist elsewhere of Costin’s notebook and calculation. On one page alone there are 26 sets of measurements/ calculations and a schematic diagram of the body in side elevation. Costin’s work is characterized by the thoroughness and attention to detail.

The whole was greater than the sum of the parts. The Chapman chassis and Costin body were probably highly integrated and complementary. Its believed that although the Vanwall engine may have produced marginally more power than the Ferrari V12 it had a 10-15 mph advantage in straight line speed on some tracks. This is more likely to be attributed to the effective body profile.

“The whole aspect of the new Vanwall was one of functional efficiency rather than sops to traditional racing car shape”……….. “The Vanwall was remarkably tall broad and bulbous shape, and yet beautifully smooth and curvilinear.”

Costin then was using the principles of high and low air pressure to achieve extracting / exhaust of air. In many respects it more resembled an aircraft, with a cockpit semi enclosed screen as a canopy.
We know how significant aerodynamics is in modern FI.


We cannot underestimate the achievement of the Vanwall or that of Chapman and Costin. The Vanwall was a technological triumph and re-launched the British Motor sport industry. Chapman would accelerate the development and go on to experiment and utilize aerodynamic thought to improve handling and down force. He too would take the World Championship on multiple occasions.
The achievement can neither be understood without reference to Britain’s technological, engineering and craft skill empathy. The A&R article on locations is a base line from which we will advance.
The A&R will continue to research these interrelationships and hopes in time to undertake more through investigation in order that more exacting, reliable and therefore more informed material will prove inspiring for future generations of engineers and entrepreneurs.

Vanwall; Ed McDonough, Crowood 2003
ISBN: 1861265425
Vanwall: Jenkinson&Posthumus, Stephens 1975
Vanwall:Ian Bambsey, Foulis 1990
The Vanwall Story: Klemantaski &Frostick. Hamish Hamilton1958
All four books were accessed through the British Library Shelf reference available on request. Alternatively order on line.
Research at Ealing Library provided the large scale Ordinance Survey Maps and photographs of the Vandervell factory building in Warple Way, Acton Vale, West London.
Max Miller cutaway technical drawing of Vanwall. Also cutaway featured in “Automobile Year 1958”
Appendix 4 from Jenkinson and Posthumus. Concerns which assisted in the construction and development of the Vanwall” [appreciation increased and referenced in conjunction with Max Miller drawing.
Ossulstone Hundred [Acton]
Kemps Directory of Acton 1955
Motor Racing Records by Ian Morrison. Guild Publishing 1987
British Racing Green by David Venables .Ian Allan. 2008
ISBN: 978071110333320